Saturday, August 4, 2012

The spirit of sport

Here's a quiz. Who won the gold in the following events in Beijing 2008.

1. Men's decathlon -  for the title of the greatest all round athlete
2. Women's 1500m - the metric mile
3. Men's football -the most popular sport on earth
4. Women's individual all round in gymnastics - the most "wow" event
5. Men's 50m freestyle swimming - the fastest swimmer in the world

If you scored zero out of five, congratulations. If I modify the questions to simply say which country did the winner come from in each of the above events, and if you still scored zero out of five, then even more congratulations. We are all in the group of 99% of the human race.

If you are wondering where I am going with this post, let me just say that I was inspired to write this by a brilliant column in today's Hindu by Nirmal Shekar.  It is an outstanding piece of writing, even by Nirmal Shekar's high standards and is a perfect exposition of the spirit of sport.

Yes, sport is about winning. But of course, its not just about winning. If you can't remember who won some of the blue riband events of the last Olympics, only four years ago, does winning really matter ? Yes and no, is the answer. Sure, the world loves a winner. Whoever is going to forget Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt from Beijing. But winning, for most, is momentary. Its also about achieving a personal excellence,  a personal ambition, doing your best, and soaking in the spirit of sport.

The spirit of sport is something undefinable. Its why after you batter each other to exhaustion, you shake each other's hand at the end. Its also why after the medal ceremony, all three medalists stand on top of the podium, arms around each other.  Its why Kobe Bryant, on the day he's not playing, is sitting at the velodrome cheering the cyclists , whom he has probably never seen before. Its why, when the national anthem is played, you can't escape tearing up.  Its why it is an indescribable honour for Saina to get her bronze medal from Li Lingwei, one of the immortals of women's badminton, who congratulated her warmly and gave her an affectionate pat. Its also why the antics in the women's doubles event in badminton is such a sad violation of what sport stands for.

So you can perhaps understand, why for me, one of the finest Indian performances in the Olympics thus far, came in the 20km walk , perhaps the most unglamorous event in athletics. It was a gripping event , if you saw it. There was attack after attack and the tactics were enthralling. The Chinese finally dominated and Chen Ding won. The defending Beijing gold medalist, Valeriy Borchin of Russia,  collapsed close to the finish after giving his all and had to be taken in an ambulance. Amidst all the drama, young Irfan, an armyman from Kerala, had the race of a lifetime. He smashed the national record as well as his personal best in coming a close 10th. He barely made the qualification mark for the event in May, and yet here he was at the finish with the world's best, performing way above his level. That is a stupendous achievement , a world class performance if there was one. He didn't win a medal. But his was a fabulous achievement.

I searched today's papers for a mention - couldn't find much. No Chief Minister is going to announce a reward. No shrill TV anchor is going to interview his mother. No crowds are going to receive him at the airport. In the usual tyranny of the first name, surname naming convention, that bedevils most South Indians, they didn't even get his name right - his bib said "Kolathum Thodi" ! Even the TV coverage during the race barely caught him, except his wonderfully happy grin when he finished. But for me, it was one of the highlights of Olympics thus far, by an Indian.

For , you see, he embodied the spirit of sport.

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